Activating New Online Learners

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Whether you are new to running a distance education course or want ideas on how to set up online support sites like Blackboard to encourage more active participation by students, there are many well-tested strategies. Try these ways to get your students online, whether the digital learning environment is part of your module or you teach entirely online.

Get started right.

Perhaps it’s best to start with what you shouldn't do: put the essential course documents online, load up some or all your lecture slides, and then disappear. If you expect students to log in—ever—there has to be reason. So if your module is based on a blended learning model (online plus face-to-face), make sure there is something that the whole group needs to do online in week 1. Set it up as an activity that requires interaction, if possible, as it’s feedback that keeps them coming back.

A typical activity is posting an article or other written material, and asking each student to post their own response (with written questions they should answer or parameters to work in) and also to comment on a certain number of other students’ responses. Almost all online learning environments have tools that will allow you to easily check whether your students have done so, and to send reminders to any that have not.

Then, respond to their work yourself in a way that can't be missed, both online and off. Make sure your expectations are clear, and preferably assessed.

Activate prior knowledge.

Most students have some prior knowledge of the subject they are studying, whether it’s from past employment, other modules, or extracurricular reading. Tapping into that builds their confidence to engage (and it can also help you quickly identify areas where some students hold erroneous views or lack knowledge, information you can use to tailor course content).

For example, create an activity that asks students to use their “best guess” to solve a real-world problem. Use a case study, and consider prompts you can use to get the discussion going if only a few students are contributing.

Again, use the tools available to you to check whether students have logged in and participated. Be sure to ask about and address any barriers to participation.

Create self-monitoring workgroups.

Whether the “work” is discussion or practical, students are more likely to contribute when they feel beholden to others. Most online learning environments allow lecturers to create small groups, which can be assigned tasks with deadlines. Ask group members to appoint one person to make sure everyone carries out their duties or to facilitate the discussion and report back to you or the full class.

Make use of tools that make online learning come alive.

When students have “live” sessions at set times, it really makes a difference in their engagement levels. There are tools to support synchronous (“real-time”) chat in most online learning environments, but sometimes systems like Skype or Adobe Connect conferencing are more robust.

Not everyone will be able to use videoconferencing, but it’s great when it works. Audio- or text-conference sessions give a personal feel to your online teaching, and are especially useful for introductory and trouble-shooting sessions, such as interactive sessions before an exam or essay deadline. Also, encourage students to form study groups and use these tools themselves.

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